Imperialists, Islamists, and communists

Ian Donovan's article 'Imperialism out of Iraq!' (Weekly Worker May 13) represents, as his theses (Weekly Worker April 29) did, an impressionistic response to immediate political developments in the Iraq war. Ian's line is a mirror image of that of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty which he criticises, and represents a danger of the CPGB sliding towards the moralistic and strategically empty 'anti-imperialism' commonplace on the left.

Torture and imperialism

The first 12 paragraphs of Ian's article focus on the exposures of American and British military torture practices which have dominated the news in the last two weeks. Ian correctly asserts that these practices are clearly a policy of the imperialists, not just aberrations, that the use of torture has been commonplace in imperialist counter-insurgency operations and that the imperialist powers have routinely for the last 50 years sold torture technology and torture training to client states in the colonial 'third world'.

Paragraph 5 of the article, however, claims that "The truth is that every disgusting technique employed by the little gangsters of the region, the worst torturers and killers like Saddam, the Saudi monarchy, the Taliban, etc, was only derivative ... All such regimes are in the end only pupils of imperialism." This claim is silly.

In the first place, it is not only the imperialists but also the Stalinists who exported torture techniques. But, secondly and more fundamentally, torture is in the last analysis an instrument of state power, in no way restricted to modern imperialism. Torture was a routine instrument of the 'criminal justice' of the ancient Roman and Chinese empires and of the European feudal states, and was found also in the judicial practice of the pre-colonial state regimes in the islamic countries.

The use of 'mild' forms of torture in British mainland police practice in the 1960s and 70s was not restricted to the Irish; the resulting scandals have led to changes in the rules of evidence and the taping of police interviews, but what happens before the suspect gets to the police station will no doubt produce more scandals in future. Forms of torture and humiliation, to establish hierarchies, are found even within the ruling elites: 'initiation rituals' in American university fraternities and French university law faculties have in the last 20 years produced occasional scandals when they have ended in death or serious injury of new students.

In the light of all this, there was absolutely no need for the imperialists to teach the use of torture to local dictatorial regimes. The imperialists have, indeed, exported torture technologies and training, and have supported torturers, as they have supported dictatorships generally against the working class and peasant masses of the colonial countries. But there is no doubt that even without imperialist support the local class and state elites would have used torture. Perhaps in different forms, but still torture.

Ian's error here slips towards the common error of 'anti-imperialism': that is, to blame everything that is wrong with the world on the imperialists. If we could only get rid of the imperialists, we would be rid of ... torture? Really? And what about the KGB and its local imitators even within liberation movements, like the security apparat which killed and tortured dissidents within the African National Congress's military wing?

'Generalised uprising' and the Iraqi left

Ian diagnoses from Fallujah and Najaf that there is a "generalised uprising". He tells us: "The forces of shia islam are becoming a real power. Muqtada al-Sadr is acquiring the stature of a national leader who shows signs of being able to appeal across the confessional divide to at least part of the sunni population on a basis that is partly national, partly pan-islamist. A mass national liberation movement has already been born, has already seized important centres, and is growing and spreading across the country."

It is on the basis of this diagnosis of the situation in Iraq that Ian concludes that "for the Iraqi left to sit this one out and take no side, proclaiming 'a plague on both your houses' between the al-Sadr-led mass opposition and the imperialist forces, is a recipe for complete marginalisation and hence political suicide".

It should, in fact, be obvious from the news reporting of occupation opponents as well as of the imperialists that Ian's diagnosis of the situation is a gross overstatement. There is mass sympathy for anyone who is prepared to fight the imperialists. There has been movement of the political positions of, for example, elements of the traditional shia leadership towards open opposition to the occupation. At the same time, however, there was a mass exodus of refugees from Fallujah at the height of the siege, and the US has been able to create at least a temporary deal by bringing ex-Ba'athist generals back into play. In Najaf al-Sadr is for the present protected by deals with the traditional shia leadership, while an attempt by his militia to launch an insurrection in Basra failed, and US operations in Karbala have not as yet proved to be the tripwire for a mass uprising. In other words, the advocates of immediate and open war to expel the occupiers do not (yet) command the level of support which would turn their minority actions into a real generalised uprising.

The political relation of forces in Iraq is, in other words, not reducible to "the forces of shia islam ... becoming a real power" - they were already a real power before recent developments, or to identifying the al-Sadr movement with the birth of a "mass national liberation movement".

Meanwhile, the torture revelations, coming on top of the April crisis, have had the effect that the relation of forces within the US administration between the neocons and the realists has shifted in favour of the realists. Powell was able to state in public on May 17 that the US would accept the formation of an islamic regime - ie, a shia-dominated clerical regime - if that was the result of elections in Iraq. At least an important faction of the administration is therefore looking for an accommodation with the shia and with Iran as a new exit strategy.

In this situation, 'taking sides' is quite clearly not enough. Today the shia leaders are the US's enemy; tomorrow they may well be on the road to a US and Iranian-sponsored attempt to create an Iranian-style islamic republic. Ian is quite correct to criticise the Iraqi Communist Party for playing footsie with Bremer's 'governing council' and the Worker-communist Party of Iraq for illusions in the United Nations (a much less serious problem). But rejecting the occupation, the 'governing council' and the UN is not the same thing as 'taking sides' with the Sadr movement, etc. Moreover, when this is taken together with Ian's silence about the tasks of Iraqi communists other than siding with the opponents of the occupation, it amounts to a repeat of the advice offered by Jack Barnes and Brian Grogan of the Unified Secretariat of the Fourth International to the Iranian Trotskyists in 1979: "Integrate yourselves in the mass movement." This really was what Ian claims the current lines of the ICP and WCPI are: a road to political suicide.


Ian claims that "Khomeini's islamic radicalism was in reality a mutant form of Iranian nationalism." This was exactly the line of argument the USFI majority used to justify their advice to the Iranian Trotskyists. It completely lacks explanatory power, because under the umbrella term 'nationalism' it hides the class politics of nationalist and religious mobilisation under concrete political dynamics. Nationalism and religious politics are, in general, movements based on the mobilisation of the petty proprietors.

Political islamism and political catholicism, in countries which have not undergone full capitalist development, have an additional element. This is that the ulama in islamic countries and the priests in capitalist ones are a pre-capitalist exploiting caste. They are therefore capable of creating regimes and movements which genuinely amount to reactionary anti-capitalisms (Afghanistan, where the quasi-feudal nobility and warlords also play a key role) or to Bonapartisms which freeze the transition to capitalism (Iran). In Iraq such a project is unlikely to succeed even to the limited and unstable extent of its success in Iran. But on the way to failure the effects of the attempt would be disastrous for the Iraqi workers.

Ian goes on to say that the Khomeini movement was a "novel way to create a strong national state, in circumstances where the more traditional, secular Arab and related nationalisms ... had been reduced to utter humiliation by the overwhelming imperative of US imperialism to keep a tight hold on a region containing the world's most important strategic oil reserves". The true element here is that secular Arab nationalism had been humiliated. The false is "the overwhelming imperative of US imperialism". Here Ian slips into the 'war for oil' error popular among the anti-war movement. The truth is that the policy of the US towards the Arab regimes was animated by the geopolitics of the cold war with the Soviet Union and by the struggle against the emergent workers' movement in the region. It was this that meant that the Arab regimes, and the Pahlavi regime in Iran, focused repression on the local workers' organisations, while applying only much more limited repression to the islamists. Together with the Soviets' misguided support for the regimes, this enabled the islamists to emerge as the primary oppositions to undemocratic regimes.

The theoretical categories deployed in this argument are simple: 'imperialism', unexplained, is opposed by 'nationalism', equally unexplained. The class dynamics and politics which underlie both phenomena go missing. We are left with a yes-no choice between 'imperialism' and 'anti-imperialism'. The refusal to make this choice is characterised as 'sectarian'.

'Sectarianism' and China

Ian accuses the worker-communists of an "inverted, sectarian, almost child-like mirror-image" of the opportunism of the left towards the Khomeini movement. He makes an analogy with the opportunism of the Chinese communists and Chiang Kai-Shek's massacre of the communists in 1926-27. In this context it is startling and significant that Ian should make no mention of the policy of the communists in China in the 1930s, when China was actually invaded and partially occupied by Japanese imperialism. If the Chinese communists had followed Ian's line, they would have called for 'victory to the resistance' and integrated themselves in the Kuomintang. This was Stalin's advice to them. Instead, they fought the imperialists with their own forces and their own methods independently of the Kuomintang. Political suicide? The result was that the defeat of the Japanese was rapidly followed by the defeat of the Kuomintang and the victory of the Chinese communists.

AWL and imperialism

Ian's article concludes with a critique of the line of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty. The bulk of this critique is wholly well-taken. The AWL's concepts of "sub-imperialisms" and the "imperialism of free trade" actually render imperialism irrelevant to present political decision-making. As a result the AWL falls back into an abstract moralism of 'national self-determination'. In a good many cases this leads them to swallow wholesale the line of the British media about conflicts to which Britain is party. In relation to the Middle East, it leads them to take their analysis from the Israeli press and adapt their political line to the consensus elements of the foreign policy approach of the Zionist parties.

There is, however, absolutely no reason to slander the Iraqi communists, as Ian does by the assertion that the AWL's line is "an even worse expression" of the method of the Iraqi communists' arguments. The Iraqi communists confront both the immediate fact of imperialist occupation - the axe murderer, or, in the terms of 1917 Russia, 'Kornilov' - and the very slightly less immediate threat of political islam - the poisoner, or, in Russian terms, 'Kerensky'. Their weakness makes it hard for them to follow the Bolsheviks' policy towards Kornilov and Kerensky or the Chinese CP's policy towards the Japanese invaders and the Kuomintang. But their policy, though confused, is part-way towards this line. The AWL's opposition to the withdrawal of imperialist troops, in contrast, flows from its Zionist political commitments. It uses the position of the Iraqi communists as a cover for this position.

Moreover, the AWL's line on imperialism is a bastard variant of a legitimate point. 'Imperialism' means state-to-state dependency relations. Classically these took the form of direct colonisation. But equally important were and are the indirect forms - of corruption, control through debt, monopolistic supply of arms, and the training of colonial state elites in the metropolis's universities and military academies ('semi-colonial' status, 'neo-colonialism'). These were practised by Britain in 19th century Latin America and by the US and other imperialist powers since the 1950s 'decolonisation'. In the Leninist theory of imperialism, these state-to-state dependency relations are driven by the need of the imperialist capitals to export capital. There are other Marxist explanations. It is genuinely true that the actual economic and class dynamics of imperialist operations need to be analysed, rather than simply imposing the template of Lenin's explanation of World War I on the world. It is also genuinely true that the strategy of the 'anti-imperialist united front' of the second and third congresses of the Communist International has very often led to defeats, and at best has produced Stalinist regimes. Ian takes for granted that the Comintern line is correct.

The underlying trouble is that Ian's line is merely the AWL's line reversed. Ian is working, just as much as the AWL, from a moralistic commitment to national self-determination not grounded in concrete class analysis. The difference is merely that the colours are reversed: what is black for the AWL is white for Ian and vice versa. The effect is that, so far as Ian's position is taken to represent the CPGB's line on Iraq, there is a danger of us sliding into the Socialist Workers Party's moralistic anti-imperialism and practice of prettifying the political islamists. This danger makes it all the more urgent that the party develop a line on Iraq based on the starting point of my theses (Weekly Worker April 29), rather than on Ian's line.